HRD as Action Research

HR Professionalism Implies HRD as Action Research 

Some have argued for “splitting” HR (see Ram Charan, 2014) and creating a functional division between the administrative and leadership & organization missions of Human Resources. No matter where you stand on this argument, I’d like to suggest that the “thought leader” and “sounding board” roles that CEO’s value in their senior leaders and want top HR leaders to play requires more than business savvy alone. Let me explain.  

Sources of Credibility, Confidence, Innovation, and Judgment 

No doubt having line management experience in other disciplines (as I can personally attest) does give us a step up when addressing leader development and organizational performance. It provides us with the contextual knowledge, instincts, and judgment to discern practical business relevance and anticipate pragmatic impacts in talent selection, deployment, and development. And for that reason, I have long advocated a rotational approach to developing HR leaders. But there’s more…. 

Great leaders also have sound management skills. In any business discipline this managerial skill involves a rational rigor of fact-finding and balanced use of analytical and creative thinking to formulate solution strategies. It also includes a practical way of testing and validating solution strategies before deploying them on a broader scale, especially if they are seen as critical to achieving strategic aims. This applies not only to the physical systems of manufacturing and operations, and the technical solutions of IT, it’s equally relevant to the human resource development systems we rely on to build leadership capacity. 

With this in mind, I submit that in order for human resources, and, more specifically, human resource development (HRD) professionals, this implies a need to incorporate into the HRD discipline an action research mindset and discipline.  

Action Research – proving impact in development and business results 

Like any kind of applied research in a live business operating environment, action research causes us to do our homework, study an issue, but not perseverate or indulge a paralysis of analysis. Rather, we take what we believe are well-reasoned ideas (practical theories and hypotheses), design a pilot project or program to implement the ideas in a business relevant manner, and then learn from the experience of applying our ideas, translating insights about self-others and our situation into leadership action. 

Based upon a design, we identify observable indicators that can give us some sense of how our design and our approach to implementing it are working. We persist in our actions long enough to observe if they show efficacy an impact. We also look for feedback along the way that suggests needs for adaptive shaping of our action strategies. Rather than unfolding in fits and starts, it’s a deliberate approach with intervening moments of reflection, perspective-taking, and incremental adaptive moves. 

Because of its more systemic nature, a pilot program of this sort quite naturally involves interdisciplinary sponsorship under the leadership of HRD professionals. I suppose you could frame this as taking a more visible place at the “management table,” but I think it may also be appropriate and empowering to think of it as making a place at your table (the HRD table) that attracts and engages non-HR management. If this is something you wish to explore, you will want to approach your first steps with care and support. 

Join Us to Learn About One Concrete Example of How to Get Started 

This kind of action research is something I have done in my prior career (in Sales & Marketing with IBM and Cisco) and for over 15 years in my career as a management psychologist. So, I believe in it and have seen it work as a consultant.

What we are offering now is an opportunity for HR leaders and HRD professionals to join a group of professional peers to conduct a shared pilot program in Emerging Leader Development. Each participating company will concurrently develop a small cohort of emerging leaders from their organization, while also validating and shaping a solution strategy that meets the specific needs of their business.  

To learn more about this program and how it may be something of interest to you, please click here. We’d love to have you join us. 

Encouraging Emergent Leadership

Whether you are a line manager, supervisor, or human resource development (HRD) professional, investing time and attention in the development of early-career professionals is one of the most important, high-return leadership actions you can take. So, why don't we do it more consistently? Many will say it's because of demands on their time. Some aren't sure what to do or how to do it.

In any case, my purpose here is to make this vital responsibility a bit easier to address. Let’s begin with an example. Then we’ll consider the why, what, and how elements of encouraging emergent leadership. I'll keep it simple (not simplistic) and focus on sure-win strategies because they get you in the game and yield the feedback that tells you if you’re moving the needle.

The Case of Brian

Off to a great start

Brian was recruited to the Mercy Medical Center when he was in his mid-twenties by a friend, Olivia, whom he met in a part-time MBA program. That was about 18 months ago, and he had proven to be a great addition to the supply chain department. He quickly took on some process issues that were instrumental to reducing inventory, a key improvement goal at Mercy.

Although his education was in accounting, he was put into an operations role in his first job out of college and really liked the energy, rapid pace, and problem solving aspects of the work. His action-oriented style was also appreciated at Mercy. But he discovered that there were differences, which presented challenges as he joined an interdisciplinary project team.

Supervisor gets feedback

Recently, his supervisor, Rebecca, had gotten feedback from Brian's team members in nursing and radiology that he seemed to “tune out” when discussion turned to the “patient experience.” His behavior seemed to say “Well, that’s your area, so let me know when you get it sorted out.” They were concerned that he lacked curiosity and concern for the large priorities of improving care.

Rebecca discussed the feedback with Brian. As she listened, it quickly became clear that Brian was actually much more interested than his colleagues knew, something his actions did not express. He kept his questions to himself, believing he would figure things out in time. Meanwhile, he saw no need to slow down the team process. Rebecca framed this interpretation as a hypothesis with Brian.

She then asked Brian, “What if I told you that you are responsible for letting others know what you are thinking, how you are feeling, and that you are trying to figure out how to contribute?” As he pondered this question, she added, "Why do you suppose colleagues might need to know these things about you? and "How might doing that actually enhance the team's process and progress?" Discussion ensued.

She and Brian talked about how different the mission and culture of Mercy was from that of his prior employer, a manufacturer of engineered products. Seldom were health outcomes and lives at stake there, but at Mercy these were always in consideration, they properly arose as the purpose in any improvement initiative and influenced most discussions.

Actionable development themes emerge

Brian quickly saw that he needed to voice his questions more often in order to learn and validate his learning about the clinical context and patient experience. Rebecca helped him see that by doing so he would rather naturally and authentically reveal his interest and motivation to learn—important things for his colleagues to know about him.

Brian came to see that his man-of-few-words approach to work was not a fit for his new role and for the mission and culture at Mercy. He needed to think out loud about how he was connecting the dots between the patient experience and the technical options for improving care. He began to see how interdependent their roles and contributions were—he saw the rationale for working as team.

With these themes in mind, Brian and Rebecca worked through some concrete examples of how he might approach interaction with his colleagues on the project team a bit differently. They discussed how he might acknowledge and build on the feedback they'd given his supervisor in order to open the door to more open dialogue and ongoing feedback. 

While Brian would never emerge as the most loquacious member of the team, he did increasingly contribute aligned acts of emergent leadership over the life of the team's work. And he did it largely by verbalizing his observations and questions. He was not attached to past ways of doing things, so his questions quite naturally stimulated innovation. His development spawned team development.

Why the focus on early-career professionals?

It's obvious upon reflection, but in the rush of the day we are not so reflective. So, let's take a moment to acknowledge the benefits of prioritizing developmental attention to early-career professionals:

  1. They are "sponges." Most are bright and will never be more amenable to adaptive learning.

  2. The way you evaluate their potential is to challenge it, see what they do with learning moments.

  3. The basics of leadership are generalizable—coach it well once, apply it elsewhere 100 times.

  4. Their naïveté can be a gift of fresh eyes, unencumbered by "best practices," open to innovation.

  5. When you express interest and encourage them, they're more likely speak up, assert initiative.

  6. There's little unlearning to do, and as they adopt and adapt ideas, you and others will learn, too.

  7. They are your future—if you can keep them, if you empower them, if you cultivate alignment.

  8. They will pay it forward as emergent leaders tomorrow, as positional leaders in the future. 

What should you focus on?

The simplest answer to this question is anything that promotes maturity and the capacity to lead and collaborate. Set the discussion in a context of task-oriented, goal-related action. This is the scene in which behaviors take on practical relevance. This is situated learning and development.

  • Scene. What happened and what is there to talk about? What must we "problematize"? [1]

  • Meaning. How did I/we construe facts, intentions, issues, options, and what's at stake?

  • Actions. What did I/we do and why? How did it play out? How did others react? Effects?

  • Do-overs. Given what I/we know now, how might I/we have interpreted/acted differently?

  • Take-aways. Development opportunities: knowledge/skills, self-regulation, communications.

  • Next steps. Action plans, opportunities to practice, and sources of feedback & measurement.

Concluding Thoughts

Taking time for developmental interventions with early-career professionals does not need to take a lot of your time. Moreover, it becomes easier and more efficient with practice. Most important, these conversations can be very empowering and growth-producing for the early-career professional.

For more on our approach to early-career leader development, please visit our site and view our whitepapers. Also, check out our upcoming webinar Early-Career Leader Development.

Contact Information:

As always, I welcome your questions.



[i] Problematization is a kind of critical thinking and dialogue used to examine the concrete aspects of a presenting situation, the parties involved, and the dynamics of interaction. It highlights and reframes challenges in ways that invite transformative action. We suspend reactive, habitual, taken-for-granted attitudes, posing the situation as problematic. This reflective stance invites consideration of new viewpoints, raises self-other awareness, and generates hope. This qualitative shift in thought, feeling, and relating to others allows new pathways of action to emerge.

4 Reasons to Approach Leader Development as Identity Work

There are some who like to challenge the idea that people can change. In some cases, they will characterize personality as something trait-like and fixed. They may say, “You are who you are.” At the same time, many of these same people will passionately insist that we must “embrace” the changes that are external to us. They seem to believe that what’s outside of us and what’s inside of us are somehow disconnected. They are wrong.  

First, there is ample evidence that not only can we change aspects of personality and identity over the course of our life, but it is perhaps the most distinctive marker of effective adaptation, i.e, intelligence. Knowing and believing this based on my professional education, research, and professional practice, I recently developed the Leader Identity Questionnaire™ (LIQ) in order to facilitate this deeper level of adaptive development.  

But my purpose here, is not to describe or promote the LIQ. Rather, I’d like to simply offer the rationale for conceptualizing and approaching leadership and leader development as identity work. It makes a difference. It’s within reach. And it sticks!  

What is identity?

Identity is the coherent, differentiated wholeness of meaning that defines an individual person as a self and agent of action to oneself and to others. Persons are differentiated by their physical appearance and distinctive patterns of overt behavior; also by acquired capabilities to think, do, and act; and, finally, by their personality, values, judgment, and ways of relating to others. All of this continues to evolve, i.e., develop, over the course of one’s life and in response to one’s experience, choices, and role-taking. Therefore, identity is an inherently personal, social, practical, and relational phenomenon.  

Leadership and leader development as identity work  

We either grow, adapt and thrive (prosocial development) or we stagnate, either by retreating from life or by defiantly reacting to change and challenge with maladaptive recalcitrance. What makes the former prosocial and adaptive and the latter anti-social and maladaptive are the normative values that motivate action and shape attitude. The prosocial path seeks the common good, respects the dignity of all, and empowers others to assert aligned acts of agency. Those taking the latter path choose to check out or to dominate others. I believe the prosocial approach is to be preferred based on moral and pragmatic considerations.  

Leader identity development is important because:  

As leaders, we are free to implement our self-concept (the leader we would like to be) and promote the flourishing of our enterprise and its people. Indeed, doing so is a vital expression of leader responsibility, which is fully compatible with but goes far beyond honoring our accountabilities.[1] I also offer a few other research-based facts and reasons that argue for this approach to the practice of leadership and leader development:    

  1. Leader authenticity promotes trust, engagement, and performance, and it’s grounded in knowing who we are and cultivating more effective ways of being who we are.    

  2. How we express who we are as leaders must adaptively change as we take on new roles and face new challenges originating from within or without the organization.    

  3. Management must learn to look for and explicitly specify the indicated needs for adaptive change, the “learning curve” implied, and the expectations for leader development.      

  4. Over and above adaptive changes in role-based identity, the leaders must clarify and hone expression of their moral core as persons in order to inspire trust and confidence.    

As you can see, leader development thus conceived goes deeper than skills training. It does so in order to activate sources of meaning and motivation that move us forward and give us the reasons and the courage to persist in our efforts, even in the face of the adversity and setbacks we must expect along the way when navigating steep learning curves.

[1] I’ve written elsewhere about the difference between and complementarity of responsibility and accountability. In simple terms, the former is a principle-centered, value-based, self-authored core of beliefs that guide judgment and action from within (moral agency), whereas accountability concerns what we owe to others in virtue of our role and the fiduciary duties specified in our agreement to take the role and act in the interests of the organization.


Why is Mindfulness so Popular?

Stress, strain, and fatigue dramatically affect our coping capacities. Perhaps you have felt yourself becoming rigid, reactive, and "brittle" under stress? Or maybe sustained periods of stress and strain leave you feeling scattered, less able to focus and function? Even worse, some of us find ourselves volleying between these emotional extremes.

In any case, the effects are problematic - for us, for our co-workers, and for those at home who want to support us. So, there are few skills more valuable than those that help us arrest such emotional dysregulation.

Dealing with strain is the new normal

The risks of chronic strain leading to burnout are inherent to the world of work today. The flatter, leaner, faster-moving, and globally dispersed organizations emerging in the post-2008 recovery demand much more from all of us. We are all expected to stretch and maximize our individual contributions. We're also expected to "play ball" with colleagues and to provide engaging and encouraging leadership to those we lead.

Even those most skeptical of the so-called "soft skills" are recognizing that coping with the strains in today's organizations requires greater emotional self-management, greater social-emotional maturity.

It is in this context that mindfulness has gained currency as a recognized competency in corporate America. It's about being present, quieting the noise, regaining and sustaining an internal locus of control. It can help us arrest extremes of emotional dysregulation. It may be used in brief doses during the day by simply taking a breath and interrupting the building momentum of emotional intensity that drives us into zones of dysregulation.

Okay, now I'm present, what's next?

When we manage to "stop the train" (or at least slow it) we are left with a question, "Now what?"

The short answer is that we then have an opportunity to invoke another state of mind, the reflective function. (See my recent blog.) It's a metacognitive state of mind in which we see ourselves situated in a here-and-now, social-organizational reality. We see ourselves, others, and our presenting situation in a context defined by diverse points of view, shared goals, schemes of purposive action, relationships, and values that we all have reason to care about. It's time to see it again for the first time!

Seeing all of this afresh means reorienting ourselves to what it means for us in our role, and for others. They have a point of view too, those we lead and those with whom we collaborate. It is a reflective state, not yet action, but we're gaining practical insight.

In this state of mind, capacities for prudential and moral judgment are awakened, our sense of agency is invigorated. We feel more potent. That enables and encourages us to act more responsibly, with greater wisdom and practical savvy. And when we engage in this kind of reflective reorientation with others, we help them regulate their emotional energies and those of the human system as a whole. It becomes a contagion of adaptive functioning, an important difference that good leaders can make.

The only way we can partition the emotional and rational aspects of mind is through an exercise in abstraction. The fact is that these facets of mind are always interacting, they affect each other, and they shape our presence and behavior as leaders. 

When we try to operate our organizations at greater velocity and through networks of greater complexity and interdependency, more is called for from all of us, especially leaders. When we care about our enterprise being healthy, adaptive, and sustainable, we raise expectations for emotional self-regulation. And we must count on our leaders' capacities for jointly regulating the emotional and motivational energies of the groups they lead and the larger social-organizational system.

3 Keys to Enduring Emotional Positivity

Motivational speakers and writers have been promoting the power of a positive mental attitude for years. Many are quite effective at generating positive emotions - feelings of hope, confidence, and optimism. Those effects, in themselves, are empowering. But we also know from decades of research that positive emotions facilitate improved cognitive performance - creativity and problem solving. The problem is, they don't always last.

Why is it that the mental and emotional state of positivity can be so fragile? Even more important, how can we make it last?

I believe the problem and the answers take us to a discussion of three basic factors:

  1. Application. We must link our insights, ideas, and burgeoning feelings of hope and confidence to a practical course of purposive action, one that makes a difference.
  2. Accountability. We need, especially at first, compelling external demands that make action imperative, that emphasize the consequential effects (price) of inaction.
  3. Inner Growth. We must internalize a mindset that promotes positivity, is aligned with moral values we identify with, and that grounds our sense of responsibility.

What is implicit throughout, which we must now call out as an explicit factor is the vital importance of others, what we owe to one another, and just how critical it is to have a bond of shared values that grounds us all in a sense of responsibility. Attention to the three factors initially, and renewing our attention to them over time is how we reassert and reaffirm our sense of responsibility.

What does that mean concretely?

Purposive Action can take the form of individual work streams of signal importance to the person and the business, or group-level projects that advance strategic imperatives. In either case, until we have linked our newly excited aspirations and emotional energy to such a cause, they are likely to suffer the same fragility that causes our motivations to dissipate after leaving an inspiring event. 

External Demands are what distinguish accountability from responsibility. Neglect of these demands can cost us (reputation, esteem, respect, advancement, compensation, maybe our job). They exert a coercive force and involve extrinsic sources of motivation. Just as transactional leadership (vs transformational) has something to offer, so too there is no shame in confessing that we sometimes need a "reason to get up in the morning." 

A Sense of Responsibility arises from within in response to values and motivations that transcend oneself and any transactional considerations. It gains and sustains power as we face squarely the moral meaning and implications of our actions and how they align with the person, and the leader, we want to be. Just as our identity evolves throughout life, so our sense of responsbility must also evolve, especially in light of new roles.

Enduring positivity

The elevated emotions and expansive optimism we feel based upon the presence and words of a great speaker, or even in the practical example of a good leader, will lose elevation. Retaining some of what was gained at those higher altitudes and in those special moments of experience depends upon how we manage the descent. Exiting the place, the state of mind, without a call to action will often lead to a freefall. 

On the other hand, if we navigate our descent by anticipating the need to enter another space and state of mind, one that orients us to doing the work characterized in the three factor above...well, we could then be on the road to bridging our "high" experience to the world we live and work in on Monday morning. This usually works best when we have an opportunity to process the experience conversationally.

The positivity ratio

Researchers in the positive psychology movement have suggested that there is "rule-of-thumb" ratio of positive to negative experiences that predicts our capacity to retain an overall positive state of mind and secure the cognitive and social-emotional benefits that accompany this state of mind. The ratio is 3 to 1. That means we must aim, through conscious effort, to ensure a ratio of three positive experiences for each negative one.

  • Think about how you start your day: If it often starts badly, are there things that you might do differently to change that? Remember the Serenity Prayer, "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." A helpful piece of common wisdom... if we use it. It's not always the big changes that make the difference.
  • Consider the ups and downs of the business day: Do you give yourself 5-minute breaks, brief breathers between meetings? Do you include other simple and pleasing sensory or somatic experiences (stretching, walking, and friendly chat with staff) that could break up the day? How can you build in time to talk with positive people and change the mix of your scheduled time?
  • Check in on your own feeling and state of being: Take breathers or 5-minute breaks to close your eyes, take a couple of breaths, notice tensions and relax them. Consider what's on your mind, what are you worried about or afraid of? Be honest. Keep it that simple. Hear yourself out on these feelings. Are there really no options or choices? Must you really do it all, do it all yourself?

These are simple self-care recommendations that focus on day-to-day routines, how they may induce negative feelings, and where there may be an opporutnity for you to incorporate more positive feelings. There may be some other "bigger" changes that you could conisder in order to improve your physical and emotional wellness (diet, exercise, meditation). Doing that can bolster your underlying levels of stamina and resilience.


I hope there is something in this article that prompts you to identify ways to incorporate more positivity in your life in 2017. However, we must remember that negative feelings are not bad per se. Indeed, it is very important to understand them too, especially those that convey fear or worry. They probably have a message worth listening to. It only when we allow negative emotions to overwhelm and suppress our positive emotions that they become detrimental to adaptive functioning, growth, and happiness.